New York has given me that Refuge
In this film, refugee South Asian LGBTQ+ activist Barbara Khan talks about her migration from Pakistan and her life in New York as a trans woman.
After they gave me my girls back, Osmin’s family [family of the ex-boyfriend] started to call me and said they were going to kill my girls and me. They called me a lot. I called my sister in Oakland and told her what was happening, and she said, “Okay, I’m going to send you money to arrange a trip here with your daughters.” We made the trip.
TREATED US LIKE CRIMINALS
I came with my two daughters at the end of 2015 with a coyote. We went in a bus from my hometown until the US border at Piedras Negras, Coahuila, directly across from Rosita, Texas, over two hundred kilometers from San Antonio. The coyote who brought us took us to another point on the border. He told me that he was going to take us across a bridge, that we weren’t going to have to walk, that we weren’t going to have to go into the river. He left us, and then another man took us. He took us for just five or ten minutes into the mountains, and then he stole some valuable gold that I’d brought with me. My sister had already paid him, but he demanded more.
He then turned us over to a gang member who brought us into the hills, and there he left us alone, lost. There were a lot of gang members drinking, smoking drugs. We were still in Mexico, close to the US border.
Three of the gang members wanted to hurt me and took us to the river. They left me there in the middle of the river with my daughters. I gathered the girls, Laura on my front and Jazmin on my back. At one point, I thought we’d gotten out of the river. I yelled, “We made it!” But we still had to cross further. There was mud that pulls you under, quicksand. I started to sink. Thank God, my daughters got out. There were a lot of vines, and they threw me some so I was able to get out. We finally crossed the river. When we got out, we were very thirsty. I felt like I was going to pass out because the sun was really hot. At this point, we were in the United States, in Texas.
We’d just crossed the river and next to it there was a really tall fence. lt was made of black metal poles that are curved at the top and probably six meters tall. We had to climb over it. We didn’t have shoes and the sand was so hot, scorching our feet. The girls were crying. We felt hopeless. And then we saw La Migra coming. Two or three officers approached us on foot and said, “Where are you coming from?” I said, “Guatemala.” And then they said, “We’re going to take you to a Station and you’re going to be okay.”
The migration station was like a jail. It had really cold air. They treated us like criminals. It was one room with a lot of people, and there were no beds or chairs. We sat on the floor and at first no one gave us water or food. There were bathrooms, but they were very dirty. The water they finally gave us had a lot of chlorine in it. lt gave me a stomachache. After a while they brought us some food. lt was like a bean burrito, but it was really gross. They said they were going to keep us there until they found a house to send us to. I was sixteen.
We were there for about six days, and then one day, at dose to midnight, they told me to sign some papers because they were going to send us to a house in Arizona. […]
“FIRST YOU’RE GOING TO EAT”
We went up in the airplane and got to the airport in Arizona. From there they picked us up and took us to a house in Youngtown, near Phoenix. There were about 150 people there. It wasn’t a jail. lt was a house called Hacienda del Sol. After we arrived, a man who worked there came out and told me, “My dear, come. First you’re going to eat, and then I’ll take you to the house store so you can get clothing for your kids. After that I’ll take you to your room so you can lay down and rest.” He gave us food and then explained to me that I was going to have a social worker to reunite us with my sister, and a counselor I could speak to if I felt bad.
After we ate, they gave us clothes, everything that we needed. They’d already given me a room, which was fairly large. I couldn’t close the door or touch the window because it had an alarm, but everything was clean. There was a bathroom with a door. I had a bed for me, one for Jazmin, and a crib for Laura.
The next day, they called my sister in Oakland. They asked her for digital copies of her fingerprints and her papers, and she sent everything. The rest of the time they tried to keep us occupied so we weren’t feeling hopeless. At six they woke us up because at seven we went downstairs for breakfast. After breakfast we went to some classrooms, and they taught classes in English. At noon, we ate lunch. Later we went back to the classroom to do projects like planting flowers and art. They gave us materials we could use to make drawings and paintings. They took care of the kids in a daycare where they had a lot of toys. lt was great. We had three meals daily and three snacks. We were there for about fifteen days.
When all of my paperwork was gathered, my caseworker came in and said to me, “Okay, tomorrow you will leave. All we need is to take a photo of your kids, and you’ll all go on a plane.” The next day, a caseworker took me to Oakland. My sister came to pick us up. We got here on June 24. I had been in Arizona for fifteen days, and in Texas for seven days, so we had only been in the United States for less than a month.
As soon as we arrived in Oakland, my sister and I started looking for a lawyer. We went to two places in San Francisco, but they didn’t want to help me. I think the first place was in the mission. At the second place, they told us to go to a third place, the East Bay Sanctuary. Once we got there, I described what my life was like with the kids’ father, a little about the poverty and the rapes. I worked with two students from the Sanctuary, one of whom spoke Spanish.
I went to the Ninth Circuit Court on Montgomery Street in San Francisco and then waited for five months for a hearing. A few weeks after the hearing, I found out that my appointment was at 1 p.m. the following day. My case had been accepted! I was really happy. I could file my application for permanent residence the next year. Meanwhile, I could work while my asylum case was processing. They gave me an employment authorization card. After five years, I could apply for citizenship and a passport. I’ll be able to travel anywhere except Guatemala.
In addition to poverty and a lack of prospects, fear of (gang) violence is a central cause of flight for many people from Central America. Around 7.5 million illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America live in the USA. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) also estimates that about 100,000 migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala apply for asylum in the United States each year. To avoid arrest, refugees must pay smugglers, known as coyotes, corrupt border agents and take risky escape routes. During their flight, migrants are repeatedly abducted, mistreated and sexually assaulted. Many are considered missing. As a result, at the end of 2018, a large migration train formed in Honduras, joined by thousands of people from El Salvador and Guatemala, to cross into the U.S. through Mexico under cover of the crowd and on foot. However, they were denied entry to the border on the grounds that they were not from a country at war and therefore not eligible for asylum.
Itzel Tzab was born in La Libertad, Petén in Guatemala.She grew up in rural poverty, where her family experienced deadly assaults by violent neighbors. She fled at the age of 18 with her two daughters of 4 and 5 years from the family of her ex-boyfriend, who threatened and harassed her. Her story sheds light on the challenges facing women and girls who have fled abusive partners and are trying to establish a new life in the United States. Here she tells about here flights and the first weeks in the US.
Mayers, Stevens / Freedman, Jonathan, 2019: Solito, Solita. Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America. Haymarker Books, Chicago, pp. 244-247.